In Iraq, 'Ghost Soldiers' Are No Match for ISIS Fighters

Hurried flight of Iraqi soldiers from battle is more understandable if you consider that a lot of them are only on the roster to pad their commanders' pockets.

AP

How much does an Iraqi soldier make? This seemingly simple question has a lot of different answers. The monthly paycheck is only one part, and sometimes a small part of the total the soldier brings home at the end of the month. Officially, a soldier’s salary is about $1,000 to $1,200 a month. This is a huge amount in Iraq today, where minimum wage is about $150 a month. But the soldier can pad his paycheck with bribes he receives to allow civilians to pass through roadblocks, or he can stock up and sell televisions or refrigerators he looted during a “search.” On the other hand, he could also be stuck without any such additional money if he serves in a difficult area such as the Anbar province in the west of the country, where there have been violent clashes for months with Sunni tribes who consider Iraqi soldiers their enemies. Officers, in comparison, can make some $6,000 a month, not including “tips.”

But there are other ways to make money on the side: For example, senior officers often charge money for promotions from junior officers. There have also been cases where senior officers took money from their unit’s coffers, and hid the theft by deducting money from their subordinates’ salaries. In other cases soldiers were forced to conduct a “fund raising campaign” for an important goal, such as buying expensive birthday presents for their commanders - such as new cars or furniture for their homes.

Other reports tell of commanders listing soldiers and officers who do not even exist, or never show up for duty, but their salaries are paid to the unit. These “ghost soldiers” are not invented - they have an identity card and an address, but they are usually freed from any duty and in return they are required to pay part of their salaries, sometimes more than half, to their commanders.

That is why the world was surprised this week at how an army of 350,000 to 400,000 soldiers fled from only a few thousands fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham, but part of the answer lies in the numbers above. This is an army that only part of which is trained, the rest does not even show up for duty; and most of the soldiers and officers are not subordinate to their commanders - but also to their political and ethnic leaders. For example, it is still not clear who gave the order to the police commanders in Mosul to abandon their posts, leave their equipment and not fight against ISIS. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki may have fired four senior officers in the division deployed in the Nineveh province earlier this week, and later he dismissed another five officers; but there is no certainty at all that these dismissals were not part of the cleansing of the army from Maliki’s rivals, and not as punishment for shirking their duty.

This makes U.S. President Barack Obama’s harsh comments this week more understandable, responding to Maliki’s request to send U.S. troops, or at least attack ISIS from the air. Though the conditions are comfortable enough, and even Iran is willing to cooperate with the United States - and of course with Iraq - to wipe out the threat from ISIS, and Arab nations look on from afar without being able to help - it seems there is no Iraqi partner to go to war with.

The use of UAVs, as was the case in Afghanistan and Yemen, could be useful when there is pinpoint intelligence, or when they want to assassinate a senior leader in a terrorist organization. But in Iraq every such attack means the wholesale killing of innocent civilians, since ISIS fighters operate inside the cities and alongside oil facilities.

Even worse, Washington admits that it does not have adequate intelligence in Iraq, or at least not the type that could advise it where and how to strike. In Iraq, as in Libya, a broad ground attack by the Iraqi army is needed, but as was revealed in the capture of Faluja by ISIS last year, the Iraq army - in which the United States invested come $25 billion - is not only incapable of doing anything, parts of it actually do not want to act against the invaders.